How do you spot a Christian in a crowd? Growing up in rural Norwich in the 1990s Christians were subtly identifiable by their appalling dress sense. When attempting to dress smart they would be more often recognisable by their cheap fitting attire; combinations of smart black trousers with ankle swingers, large white shirts with crooked collars and ties tied too short. Dressed casually a Christian would be harder to pick out from the crowd; a few key clues would be the lack of brand name clothing, crap trainers from a local discount store and a genuine desire to dress for comfort over coolness. Now living in a more fashion conscious era and in multicultural east London my Christian brothers and sisters are far harder to recognise in comparison to the devout Muslims of Bethnal Green and the orthodox Jews of Stamford Hill. The one group of Christians to stand out from the crowd on a Sunday morning in east London are the black queens and their children dressed like weekend religious royalty. Amongst the highly diverse congregations of east London, black women are the only demographic to feature in every service I have witnessed, without their contribution the majority of church attendances would crumble and this was never more clearly stated than when Ivisited The Dalston Methodist Church on Richmond road.
The Dalston Methodist Church is nestled in quiet road situated next to a bridge overlooking the new east London line; its position off the main road provides an atmosphere of exclusive cosiness. When arriving on a cold sharp Sunday morning to this snuggly solace of a church I was greeted by a congregation of predominantly black women all dressed in their finery and very thankful for my visit. In the small but well lit hall I counted three to four black women to every black male, with the occasional white blip being me and two other ladies. The importance of the ladies of Dalston Methodist church was accentuated when it became clear that in the absence of the priest it was the women who were relied upon to direct the service not the men.
After explaining the intentions of my visit the women felt the need to apologise that I had picked the wrong Sunday service as the reverend was away ill and that the service was to be held by Sister Clarence. Some suggested I come again when a man closer to God was present but in my eyes Sister Clarence appeared to be a suitable modern day saint. Braving illness and in her 70s but extremely articulate you could hear Caribbean twang, ill health and life experience in the back of her throat. The gravitas to her voice could make a shopping list sound like the Holy Scripture. Sister Clarence was a tall elderly West Indian woman with magisterial long grey hair and a fine handsome face, her chin was held high and her inquisitive eyes seemed to reach past the frames of her glasses to welcome you. Wearing a salmon pink dress and jacket with a large matching hat of such enormous height it laid on her head like a crown. Sister Clarence’s appearance and manner was like a friendly distant Caribbean member of the royal family, mannered but sincere.
The head matriarch would tour the church aristocracy who were ranked by age and recognisable by their smarter more conservative attire. Younger women appeared to be not dressed in the traditional Sunday best but in their daily wears of the week unlike the older generation who dressed like a group of Cheltenham ladies going to Notting Hill carnival. Caught by a clutch of kind Christian women I was mug mothered; anything I said was treated with the amusement a parent has to a child, lots of instinctive nods and patronising smiles but never fully understood. Despite a lack of understanding I do love being mothered and enjoyed watching an almost entirely female driven service but when the women were not calling the shots in the name of the lord it was in the name of the children.
The service had the regular prayers, readings and hymns but the sermon did seem to have little structure with the exception of a focus on “the Children.” Sister Clarence insisted on directly addressing the mini congregation of 5 children. She first apologised for the lack of Sunday school and then publically tested the kids on their Bible knowledge. Watching the sermon was like watching an episode of “Kids Say the Funniest Things,” when asked questions about Christ. The congregation were a chorus of ahhhs, light chuckles and belated breaths as each child sweetly stumbled over every answer. In previous installments I had commented on the antics of a certain Little Antoine’s disruption of a Catholic service when visiting Our Lady of Assumption in Bethnal Green. Little Antoine would have been easily quelled by this congregation of surrogate mothers. The 6 children attempted to run riot but were quickly picked from the aisles and placed on the lap of the nearest matriarch. In a service in which a large number of women would mother muzzle the small group of children it was ironic that the little congregation seemed to come from the one mother. The real mother (not the surrogates) gave an impassioned speech during the sharing of prayer in which the congregation asked for thanks and help from God. Her concern was that “the children,” are moving away from God and the need to return the family to the order of the church and therefore away from “gangs, drugs and crime.” The real mother’s paranoid and passionate prayer felt scary due to the love and sincerity of her concern. The clapping reaction from the congregation clearly indicated a shared sense of truth and burden surrounding a generational abandonment.
The shared prayer was a revealing and rewarding addition to the service as it informed you of the church community pushing the personal into the congregation’s prayers. Catholic’s would not have tolerated such openness detracting from the ritual and Anglican’s would prefer to focus on larger issues with a more mannered attitude to personal problems but the shared prayer did feature in the less formal and more emotive churches of Baptists, Evangelicals and Pentecostals. The shared prayer of The Dalston Methodist church was highly interesting as the majority of prayers came from the women and nearly all of them concerned people not in attendance at the church. “The children,” seemed to be in the forefront of the congregation’s minds despite their absence but I felt the unspoken consensus of opinion that the absent family and community were still protected by god as long as a one person represented their people on a Sunday morning. Could all these women be visiting church for the benefit of their absent children, husbands, family and friends? The church was not just keeping a feeling of God alive but within the congregation it was keeping the essence of community and family alive. Such faith was admirable and inaccessible to my cynicism yet I felt comforted that I soon would be in their prayers. The women of Dalston Methodist Church worship to thank God but also to keep a tradition alive, a tradition which they feel does not just connect with communities of the past but also protects the communities of the future.